Big Bad Jimmy

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VARINA, Va. - With his familiar drawl and sly smile, Jimmy Dean mentions he has sold all but one share of his stock in Sara Lee Corp., the conglomerate that ditched him as spokesman for his sausage brand.

This is no mere aside. He is lashing back with a public relations and legal campaign that could lead to yet another financial windfall for the 75-year-old multimillionaire.

If Sara Lee had wanted to know what was coming, it should have studied Mr. Dean’s history. Over the years, Mr. Dean has tangled with record executives, network television leaders and even his own brother. At the same time, he has earned a reputation as a sharp businessman, raking in millions of dollars from investments.

Mr. Dean owns a piece of a New York bank and a chunk of prime property near Washington Dulles International Airport. Before the airport was built, he paid $12,000 for the 76 acres of undeveloped land now worth millions.

He has invested in a lime grove, a seafood business, a winery, oil wells, residential developments and nursing homes. In the early 1990s, his fortune was estimated at $75 million.

Mr. Dean dodges questions about his net worth as he lives in semiretirement with his wife, Donna, on a 200-acre James River estate outside Richmond.

On a recent visit, he seemed almost grandfatherly, lounging in a jogging suit, cooing at his two poodles and sing-talking his big hit, “Big Bad John.” “Ev’ry mornin’ at the mine you could see him arrive. He stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five. Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip. And everybody knew ya didn’t give no lip to Big John.”

Then he paused. “You know, I might have been the first rapper,” he cracked.

Don’t be fooled by the charm.

A draft of his soon-to-be-published autobiography reveals a savvy and sometimes uncompromising side that helped Mr. Dean navigate the ups and downs of three careers: country music singer, television host and sausage entrepreneur.

He grew up in a musical but poor household in Plainview, Texas. His mother, Ruth Taylor Dean, showed him how to play his first chord on the piano, and he taught himself to play the accordion and the harmonica. His father, G.O. Dean, was abusive and later left the family. He also was a songwriter, inventor, singer, preacher and author — “anything to get him out of work,” Mr. Dean wrote.

Mr. Dean got his start in the music business as an accordionist at a tavern near Bolling Air Force Base in the District, where he was stationed in the 1940s. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he fronted his band, the Texas Wildcats, and gained a following through appearances on Washington-area radio.

Roy Clark, a young member of the band who went on to “Hee Haw” fame, said in a recent interview that “from Day One, you knew it was Dean’s way or the highway.”

For Mr. Clark, it was the highway. After Mr. Clark showed up late one too many times, Mr. Dean told the young guitarist he would be a big star someday — and fired him. “I forgot how he worded it, but I was not helping his cause,” said Mr. Clark, who remains friends with Mr. Dean.

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